Rural broadband is a farm bill focus

By: - March 10, 2022 5:57 pm

Young student watching lesson online and studying from home. (Photo by Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for federal assistance to develop high-speed internet connectivity in all parts of the country, members of a U.S. House subcommittee agreed this week as they reviewed provisions that are likely to be included in the next farm bill.

“I represent a largely rural district in north-central, northeast Florida, and we have children who do their homework in a Hardee’s parking lot,” said U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, a Florida Republican.

Students around the country scrambled to find internet access to participate in virtual learning when the pandemic limited in-person classes. It was a reminder that federal funds should be focused on providing broadband access to as many Americans as possible, Cammack said, rather than increasing the speeds of existing service.

Several members of the House’s Commodity Exchanges, Energy and Credit subcommittee echoed those concerns about so-called “overbuilding” of existing infrastructure during a Tuesday hearing that sought to review the rural development component of the next farm bill, which could be approved next year.

The current farm bill was last renewed in 2018 and partially expires next year. It’s a wide-ranging law that was expected to cost about $428 billion over the course of five years. About three-fourths of that money is devoted to food assistance for low-income residents, and most of the rest goes to crop insurance, commodity support and land conservation.

Previous farm bills provided loans to develop internet infrastructure, but for the first time in 2018, lawmakers also established grants for the projects and raised the minimum speed thresholds that define whether an area has sufficiently fast access, according to the Congressional Research Service. The previous download speed considered sufficient was 4 megabits per second, which was increased to 25.

Xochitl Torres Small, undersecretary for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said establishing broadband access for as many rural residents as possible is a paramount priority that must be balanced with other projects that will allow for speed upgrades.

“We certainly saw in the midst of COVID, with your kids who are sitting in the Hardee’s parking lot, that 25 (megabits per second) isn’t enough for them to be able to listen to their teacher and learn from home,” Torres Small said.

Lawmakers also created the ReConnect Program in 2018 that is separate from the farm bill’s Rural Broadband Program but has similar goals, and states have implemented their own programs.

Iowa devotes hundreds of millions to broadband grants

Iowa’s Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program began about three years ago with a relatively small $1.3 million of funding that was awarded for seven projects, but the grants have swelled thanks in large part to federal pandemic relief money. Lawmakers also earmarked $100 million of state money last year to fund the program and aid Gov. Kim Reynolds’ goal of universal broadband access for all residents by 2025.

The darkened areas show the areas of the state that have lacked 25 Mbps internet service. (Graphic courtesy of State of Iowa)

Iowa has lagged behind nearly all other states in high-speed internet access and has “broadband deserts” in a third of its counties, Reynolds has said. Those areas are most pronounced in the southwest and far northeast areas of the state.

In January, the state announced another $200 million of new grants for broadband projects, which raised the total amount of grant awards in the past three years to about $880 million.

“Without the grant funds, we wouldn’t be able to spend the money to build to these homes,” said Rachel Hamilton, chief executive of the Marne Elk Horn Telephone Company in western Iowa.

The company was recently awarded more than a half million dollars from the state program to connect 600 homes in rural Pottawattamie County to its high-speed fiber network. Without the grant money, the project would not be financially feasible because of its high cost per household, she said. It’s expected to be completed in 2024.

“People are moving out of the city in droves, and they want a rural lifestyle, but one thing that holds them back is the rural broadband,” Hamilton said.

U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, said during subcommittee hearing that smaller telecommunications companies — similar to Marne Elk Horn, that has about 4,000 customers — should be prioritized over large regional or national companies for federal assistance.

U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said more should be done to coordinate with other government agencies to expedite the infrastructure projects.

“Getting this done is so important,” she said. “Iowa falls (to the) bottom of the barrel when it comes to connectivity.”

Torres Small acknowledged the urgency and shared a southwest Iowa anecdote:

“I was in Lewis, Iowa the other day, and the mayor there remembers the exact spot on the hill that he used to have to go to make a cellphone call,” she said. “A few months later, Rural Development brought in some fiber. A cellphone company put up a tower right next to it. Now he can call from his phone anywhere in Lewis, and he can also operate his business from home. Those are the kinds of impacts we want to make.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.